Almera, Nissan’s tiny little turbo charger

Japanese brand 1, Japanese brand 2, and only then comes the Nissan. That is the story of the automotive competition, generally, and for the B-segment sedan specifically.

The Nissan Almera story in Malaysia started in 1995 when it was introduced as a replacement for the Sunny as a hatchback as well as a four-door saloon. It was in 2012 that the third-generation Almera was introduced to the Malaysian market and had several facelifts and model changes introduced over the years.

It struggled to gain the upper hand against the other two established Japanese rivals and continued to remain a laggard in the compact sedan-segment stakes. Debating this parlous state of affairs was a favoured topic amongst auto enthusiasts with the perennial debate centring on how and why the Nissan Almera name never gained the ascendancy nor parity over its two rival Japanese brands.

So, taking the bull by the horns, Edaran Tan Chong Motor (ETCM) launched the Nissan Almera Turbo at the end of 2020, which it hoped would reverse its fortunes. Ironically, it was given a one-litre engine that was designed to combine power, performance, and economy in one feisty package. A contrarian move if ever there was one – displaying the adage ‘less is more’ – Nissan opted for a three-cylinder, one-litre package but mated it with turbo power.

At the launch, ETCM’s sales and marketing director Christopher Tan emphasised its freshness and joked that the only thing carried over from the previous Almera was the key fob. (And maybe, perhaps, they could have gone the whole hog and changed that, too).

Three different variants were offered – the VL base model, the VLP mid-ranger, and the top-specced VLT. It is this model – registration VKN 37 – that has been truly tried and tested for just over a year before we got our hands on it. It gets an honourable mention since it has been handled by just about all of the motoring media fraternity before we got round to testing it. This is significant as we are in a good position to gauge how ownership and robust use over that period has affected its performance.

The first thing that strikes the onlooker is its color – regally described as Monarch Orange.

During the day, the sun beating on the hood, makes its presence simply unmistakeable. At night, the piercing combination of halogen and LED, reflects the striking ochre that would make an owl squint. A stunning looker it is. I was so moved by its presence that I researched what orange does – it creates feelings of freshness, excitement, and warmth. It gives off high energy and increased competitiveness, hinting danger lurks.

The original plan was to make the trip to the southernmost point – Pengerang on Johor’s eastern tip – to revisit my old stomping grounds from my reporting days with the New Straits Times Johor bureau, way back then. But the year-end floods put paid to that plan.

Then a colleague heard of an unusual gathering – a convoy of cars; of whatever make or vintage; up the Karak highway for a rendezvous at the Genting Petron station forecourt and rest area on a weekday late in the night.

News of the shindig was spread totally via social media and we thought this could be an appropriate opportunity to put the Almera to the sword and prove its mettle.

The date chosen was Dec 12, the significance of which escapes me – surprise, surprise!

I have to let you in on a little secret – we had made the trip up Genting a few days before but chose to do it the hard(er) way. Instead of heading straight for the Gombak toll plaza, we detoured into the road leading to Sungai Pusu, past the International Islamic University, and looked for signs that pointed to – Bentong. Yes, before the South Koreans introduced TNT to local road-building by blasting rocks off the Gombak-Karak-Bentong limestone outcrop, this was the only road route linking this part of Selangor to Pahang.

This road is a little like the narrow, windy, two-way interstate Bukit Putus stretch that links Seremban and Kuala Pilah – before it was upgraded to become more of the highway it is now.

The routes – while not exactly town-to-town long distance; allowed the car to be driven over a fair amount of mileage to put it through its paces.

What did the test drive reveal? That the one-litre turbo was a real cili padi of a package. It allowed us to boldly shift down, press the pedal, and overtake those pesky five-tonne courier lorries that are ubiquitous in these parts. They announce their presence from miles away – their whiney exhausts bearing secondary Thai number plates giving off a banshee-like premonition. Imagine what it would feel like driving at night.

To this day, I have been meaning to ask the Road Transport Department why these drivers prefer to traverse such a possibly treacherous route (there were signs of landslips and rock falls at every turn) to get from the heart of Kuala Lumpur to hook up on to the highway at Genting Sempah when the amount of toll waived this way was just under RM10. But to each his own. Perhaps they preferred this route to pay homage to some Long Distance Drivers’ Guardian Angel.

Remember I was waxing lyrical about the colour? Yup – we could be spotted from miles ahead, so our presence was detected and our right of way respected – even by them spirited lorry drivers.

To automotive aesthetes, this version of the Almera is by leaps and bounds better looking than the third generation progenitor. Its contours – what with the added attraction of the Tomei Aero package – make it sassier and sportier. It gives the Almera sports pedals with foot rest (that gives better grip when undertaking determined passing manoeuvres), door handle protectors, door sill kick plates, door visors, and cool tinting film to keep the sun’s glare at bay.

There have been tons of tomes written and precious minutes dedicated to video reels about what is right – and wrong about this car. One has to be truly finicky to find fault with every wind noise that filters through the padding in the car body or the vibration transferred to one’s fifth vertebrae as the car runs over a badly-engineered road bump.

What I got from the test drive was – here is a good-looker of a car, sportily outfitted, turbo-powered in a small package, economical to drive, and, does the job demanded of it ever so well. What more could one ask – even if the car-buying masses still want to opt for the tried and tested brand(s).

As for the 12-12 night convoy up to Genting, we may not have been the quickest because other drivers were displaying far more devil-may-care driving tendencies.

But we did attract a lot of envious glares – and the odd wolf whistle as we gently rolled up to the rendezvous point a little before the clock struck midnight. If we were in the old Almera, perhaps we would have turned into a pumpkin, as we could have arrived dead last.

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